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Darlington: Too darned fast? Let's ask Gordon, Biffle and Kyle Busch...after Saturday's 500

  Jeff Gordon congratulating Mark Martin on winning the 2009 Southern 500....maybe turnaround this time? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Uh, it looks like we've got a problem.
   Speeds at the oldest superspeedway in NASCAR are just too darned fast.
   Now it's been that way at Darlington Raceway for two years now, since the repave.
   Only this weekend there's a new twist -- this will be the first Darlington race with NASCAR's crash-breeding double-file restarts....and the first Darlington race with NASCAR new three attempts at green-white-checkered.
   And remember that classic Darlington finish back in 2003, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch banged each other hard the last in one of the best finishes in NASCAR history?
   And what does all this mean for Daytona, which is to be repaved in similar style to this vintage 1950 place -- with state-of-the-art asphalt, nice and smooth.
   Which, to judge from what happened here when Darlington Raceway was repaved for the 2008 spring race, means Daytona will be darned fast.
   A little history here (and this place certainly has plenty): When Darlington was repaved in 1995, Ward Burton set a track record of nearly 174 mph.
   This at a quirky egg-shaped oval (had to dodge that fish pond over on the west side) where the pole winning speed for the first race was a sizzling 82 mph. That's right, 82 mph.
   Now, with the lightning new asphalt, speeds into the corners are 200 mph.
   No wonder last spring's Mother's Day weekend 500 ran well over four hours, and featured 17 cautions, before Mark Martin wound up the survivor.
   It might seem the hard South Carolina summers might weather this 1.366-mile oval, but so far doesn't seem so: Greg Biffle was on the pole just after the repave at a ripping 179.442 mph, in 2008. And Martin Truex, then in the car Jamie McMurray now drives for Chip Ganassi, was on the pole last year at 179.514 mph.

   When it comes to fast, Greg Biffle is fast (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   One good thing about all this speed -- should be a good crowd, probably 75,000.
   Darlington lost the original Southern 500 to Los Angeles, supposedly because of small crowds in this cotton field market about halfway between Myrtle Beach and Columbia, and about an hour south of former Cup tour stop North Carolina Motor Speedway. 
    But it's not so much an isolated location -- heck, this track is just two hours or so south of Raleigh and only four hours east of Atlanta, and it sits right on Interstate-95, prime -- as it is lack of infrastructure, hotels and restaurants, that has cost this track.
   And another issue -- after Daytona bought this track it didn't do much for a long time to improve the place, which was long rundown. So Darlington became a faded flower  on the stock car tour...particularly with the massive improvements made at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway.
   Now, though, track pres Chris Browning has been given some money to spruce things up, and it's a lot spiffier.
   Plus, there has been modest urban expansion over in Florence.
   And the action....well, Darlington Raceway has never lacked for action.
   It has always been such a tricky track -- calling it wicked is too kind --  that drivers have to stay on their toes, more so than at most other tracks on the tour.
   Throw in the Saturday night lights, cooler temperatures generally (and fewer sand fleas), and this lightning-quick asphalt, and well, it will be interesting to see if drivers are as feisty here as they have been much of the spring (except for last Saturday's Richmond 400, which was unusually calm, drivers conceded, for some reason).

     Kyle Busch, here celebrating his 2008 Darlington win, comes into Saturday's Southern 500 off a rocking victory at Richmond (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     The setting:  Jimmie Johnson may be getting rattled off his game...Richard Childress' guys are red-hot and ready (any of the three could win Saturday night, but Jeff Burton might be the best pick)...Juan Pablo Montoya is having his best season ever in this sport, and seems to be having so much fun....Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become all-but irrelevant in this sport, and two feature spreads in the National Enquirer aren't the type of publicity team owner Rick Hendrick likes to see...Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles appears to be ramping up his company's support of this sport, and that's good news for team owner Roger Penske, and drivers Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch (Sam Hornish, though getting a vote of approval from Penske for a ride in 2011, still seems off the game).
  The men to beat: Jeff Gordon, always a strong, smart runner here, and certainly overdue this season; Greg Biffle, one of the fastest men in the sport, and increasingly frustrated (particularly after a dismal night at Richmond); and Kyle Busch, who just got his first tour win with new crew chief Dave Rogers.
   Gordon has seven victories here and three poles (plus 17 top-fives and 20 top-10s in 29 starts).
   "This track used to be so tough because the surface was so abrasive," Gordon says.
   And abrasive meant the tires lost most of their 'goodie' in the first 10 laps, leaving drivers driving breathless the next 60 until they could get new rubber.
   Now it's quite a different track, with the tires giving up very little over the 100-mile run, meaning drivers don't get spread out....and speeds don't slow down.
    So it's still a finesse track, just in a different way: "It's smoother, and it has more grip...but it's still pretty treacherous, because you run right up next to the wall."
    That may be something for drivers to ponder when they consider the new pavement at Daytona: will they have to rim-ride there too?
    The line on Darlington is simple: "It can still bite you," Gordon frets.”
   What that means for track position is unclear.
   Normally track position would be extremely important here, because it's so hard to pass.
   However the new double-file restart rule has made fresh tires more important than track position this spring, oddly.
   "If my driver were sitting there on four fresh tires, next to another guy also on four fresh tires, and just ahead of us was a guy who had skipped the pit stop to keep track position and was on worn tires....I would fully expect my driver to put that guy in the wall," crew chief Greg Erwin, who heads Biffle's team, says steely-eyed.
   "That's just the way it is -- with these double-file restarts, if you're out there on worn tires, you're just a target...and the guys behind you on fresh tires are going to take you three-wide in the first turn."
   Indeed, some of the action on the tour so far this season has been rather brutal.
   Gordon: "Track position is extremely important here because the track is so fast, and it's so hard to pass.
    "And you're never going to have a perfect car or perfect setup. Both ends of the track are totally different. That means you have to compromise as a driver and as a team with the setup.
    "As a driver you have to work around not having a perfect-handling car...and try to find the fastest way through the corners.
    "The track is starting to wear out a little, and you are constantly trying to get to the edge of the grip level. There's just a small margin for error because you're running so fast so close to the wall.
    "And if you focus too much on trying to outrun the competition, then you'll make a mistake.
   "A lot of times if you just run a nice race and keep yourself out of trouble, you will end up towards the top."
   But easier said than done.
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   That last round of pit stops has been key this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



"And the action....well,

"And the action....well, Darlington Raceway has never lacked for action."

Bingo. When will NASCAR learn this and quit giving us double races at the likes of California and other boring tracks (i.e. talks of the "action-packed" Kansas having two). It's not simply about the number of butts in seats. Fans will tune in the TV to see a good show, and Darlington does not usually disappoint. The races at Darlington were ones I always looked forward to when they had two, and now even moreso that they have just one. The cliche' about "racing the race track" should have been given birth there, because it holds so true. This track tests a driver's mettle like no other.

Darlington "Action" Isn't Racing

Darlington may not lack "action," but it lacks anything resembling racing. Racing the racetrack is not racing; racing is about positional passing up front and Darlington is among the weakest tracks when it comes to that. It tests nothing beyond survival.

Stick to watching open-wheel

Stick to watching open-wheel racing. It seems to suit what you like better: big tracks, boring racing, and no touching.

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